Archive for the ‘other media’ Category

May Books

Hello Down There (Michael Parker)

There’s a strong Faulkner influence here, but applied to the Piedmont of North Carolina in the middle of the twentieth century. I picked this up in the LGBT section of the bookstore, but there is no gay content (except for one homophobic joke). It’s more about drug addiction and (hetero) sexual mores. It’s a sad book, early in his career. I hope he has found happier subjects.

Basil (Wilkie Collins)

The story of a young idiot who gets deceived by a family of gold diggers. There’s some looking at the absurdity of marriage laws that prefigures Miss or Mrs?, and this also has what one of my professors described as the most graphically violent scene in Victorian literature, when Basil grinds his rival’s face into a freshly macadamized road. This is during the period when Collins rejects the marriage plot in favor of sibling relationships, but I hope that he’s not actually encouraging incest. The sister in this one is a real Angel in the House, so it’s frustrating – none of the women characters are believable. Collins will eventually get to where he writes complex, interesting women, but he’s not there yet.

Mr Wray’s Cash Box (Wilkie Collins)

This is a little Christmas novella. It’s not great, but it’s cute and heartwarming, though the ending gets a little capitalist for my taste. An aging actor sneaks into the church at Stratford and makes a mold of the bust of Shakespeare, but he’s too afraid to make more than one cast of it. He thinks the police are going to take him away for breaking copyright, but he doesn’t actually know the law. He’s fine.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte)

Anne Bronte was the born-again religious one among the Bronte sisters, so while all of them quote the Bible out of context all the time, she does it with a little more piety than her sisters. She also relies on some of Milton’s ideas, the importance of growing and changing one’s mind and the worthlessness of virtue untested. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was seen as a little too sweet and innocent, especially when it was paired with Wuthering Heights, so this was her edgy follow-up. This book takes a hard look at alcoholism and its consequences. Some of her attitudes are surprisingly modern, as when Huntingdon talks about addiction as a disease and a compulsion rather than simply a habit. Also when Hattersley is helped out of it by strengthening relationships instead of being preached at. Some of the women are a little too Angel-in-the-House for me to appreciate them, and I question the wisdom of Helen’s returning to her husband after she left him for very good reasons, but as a whole it’s actually a really good book. Narrators reveal more of themselves than they intend, which is an effect I always enjoy.

Dangerous Personalities (Joe Navarro)

Navarro used to be a profiler for the FBI, so this book focuses on that sort of quick, targeted classification of people. He discusses four basic toxic personalities: Narcissist, Unstable, Paranoid, and Predator. At the end of each chapter there is a quiz to see if someone you know fits this type. The scoring leads to four divisions: safe, annoying, obstructive, and dangerous. I scored my guy as annoying in both narcissism and paranoia and obstructive in instability. It took me another month to get away from him, but I’m good now. I scored myself as annoying in instability, and it seems accurate. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone to have tried to live with me consistently through the last seven years. Navarro’s examples tend to be serial killers, so he can seem a little over the top (as law enforcement officials tend to do), but if you remember to dilute his intensity, it’s an informative book.

If Nuns Ruled the World (Jo Piazza)

I got unexpectedly excited about this book. It’s not so much a story of faith as it is true stories of amazing women who do fantastic things with their lives. Most of them are activists – whether for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, human trafficking victims – and some of them are just doing extraordinary things in their old age, like the one who didn’t start running until she was older than I am now, but worked herself up to compete in marathons, and continues into her eighties. It is true that these are women from a shared, specific faith community, but the good work they do goes beyond that community. In fact, they sometimes end up in conflict with the male leaders of their church because of the work they’re doing to make things better for everyone. Their stories can inspire anyone who wants to make our world better, Catholic or not, particularly those who are interested in women’s political activism.

The Path of the Green Man: Gay Men, Wicca, and Living a Magical Life (Michael Thomas Ford)

This was a fantastic book. Ford introduces us to the basic concepts of Wicca and a little of their history, with ideas for meditation exercises. Along with the nonfiction, he also writes an allegory where the green man travels through the wheel of the year, hitting the eight celebrations commonly celebrated by modern pagans, and meeting gods from a variety of (mostly European) traditions. I loved this book and it meant a lot to me.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J. K. Rowling)

The first time I read this book, I had a hard time staying with it because I couldn’t find the mystery that kept the story together. It’s so long and digresses into so many details, and it’s great that Rowling didn’t stop world-building after the first book (so many fantasy authors do), but at almost nine hundred pages I felt my attention wavering. This was the second time, though, and when you know that Harry’s emotional state is the mystery and not just an obnoxious by-product of being fifteen, the book makes more sense. Rowling really hits the connection between Harry and Voldemort hard in this one, and that focus will grow toward book seven. There’s a lot of conflict between Harry and society as a whole, not just with his friends, which we saw less of in previous books. The atmosphere of conflict extends to the Weasleys, as Percy cuts himself off from the rest of the family. There’s a general sense that everything is getting bad, so it’s easy to assume that Harry being a little bitch all the time is just part of the general malaise and not proof that Voldemort is taking over his mind. It’s a much more complex and abstract problem than we had before, and as the dumb jock, Harry isn’t really equipped to handle it. Oh, and while it’s great that Ernie Macmillan has finally developed a personality, I think it’s a shame that that personality is Pompous Ass. Luna Lovegood makes her first appearance here, and she makes me very happy. I’ve heard people complain about the worthlessness of wizards who never use magic unless it’s dramatically appropriate; the Hogwarts kids learn Cheering Charms in year three, get tested on them in year five, but never use them outside of class. They literally know a spell to make each other happy, and they stubbornly refuse to do it. I do not understand.

 

June Books

Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (ed. Devon W Carbado and Donald Weise)

This was a strange anthology. The writings are grouped thematically rather than chronologically, and the divisions didn’t always make sense. Discussions of the United States government’s attitude toward African nations and toward Americans of African descent seem to me to overlap, so why not put them together? It also seems that the majority of Rustin’s work was in action rather than in writing or speaking. While his command of rhetoric is impressive, even he implies that he is most effective at organizing events and movements rather than speaking at them. Rustin’s style is highly educated, which can alienate his less-educated audience. He’s not as popular today, not only because he didn’t go down in a blaze of glory, but because people today aren’t impressed by erudition. People who seem smarter than others are feared and distrusted, not valued. It was probably the case at his time as well. Because my own education in twentieth-century history is not great, I hadn’t realized how much World War II had done for civil rights. The ground was prepared when all those soldiers were forced to mix together; knowing people of color helped whites to understand their value. Rustin started his work shortly afterward, in the late 1940s. The book focuses on the 1960s, as do the superficial discussions of civil rights movements in United States classrooms; it’s misleading because it ignores the gains of the 1950s as well as the fact that drinking out of the same water fountain doesn’t solve everyone’s problems. We’re still struggling with racism all over the world. The two crosses in the title refer to the fact that Rustin was both black and gay, but while he was an activist who was gay, he was not a gay activist. When Stonewall happened, he did not build on the momentum to organize a movement. His focus was on race, and dealing with that identity took up most of his time. He spoke about being gay some, but by the 1980s people only wanted to hear him talk about Martin Luther King. So yes, his sexuality and the prejudices about it (and the imprisonments because of it) were an obstacle to his visible participation in the civil rights movement, but even after twenty years he didn’t have much to say about it. I’ve been talking about those identities that make him similar to me, a gay man working on a second graduate degree, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of what he did for communities of color in the United States. He worked with the bus boycotts made famous by Rosa Parks, and he organized the March on Washington. He was an amazing person at the forefront of cultural change, and the improvements in our laws and culture toward ethnic differences are due to him and his influence. He didn’t do it alone, but what he did changed the course of history.

Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (Isak Dinesen)

Confession time: I don’t remember a whole lot about this book. Dinesen’s stories are slow and beautiful, some are realistic and some are fairy tales, but I’ve had so much upheaval in the last two weeks that it seems like I read this book in another life. The most famous one from this collection is Babette’s Feast, due to the slow film that was made of it. It takes a lot of effort to stretch forty pages to fill that much movie. I watched it a few years ago with a friend who said it was her favorite, and we saw different things in it. The story is about a famous French chef who flees from war-torn Paris and finds shelter in an unusually conservative community of Lutherans in Norway. After several years, she wins a lot of money and spends it all preparing a dinner for her friends like the ones she used to make for the wealthy French. If I remember correctly, my friend saw it as a story of artistry and giving one’s best, even when people don’t appreciate it (or know enough to appreciate it). Reading the story, though, I agree that it has to do with the place of the artist in society, but it’s not about love and gratitude. Babette’s feast is a judgment. When she arrives in town, they teach her to make alebread and fish, like she doesn’t know how, and she is forced to kill her creativity for twelve years making these shitty meals for people that she really does come to care about. Someone who can make a turtle soup that people would die for can certainly make bread and fish a sight better than these unoriginal household cooks, but they don’t want her to. The story is about everyone ignoring and undervaluing her gifts, and her feast is a way of saying, “Look at what I can do! Look at what you’ve missed! Look at the talent that your stupid religion has hidden under a bushel!” It’s a story that condemns society for not giving artists free rein to express themselves. It’s a dumb religion that says, God gave you the ability to make the world vibrantly beautiful, but you have to keep making it greyly small because that’s what makes us comfortable.

Quill Me Now: The ABCs of Spellcraft (Jordan Castillo Price)

This is a short little novella, but I thought it was a lot of fun. In this world, magic requires two parts: a picture painted by a left-handed Seer and a saying written by a right-handed Scrivener. Dixon is from a family of Scriveners, though he isn’t really one himself, and he meets a sensitive Russian hunk with a real gift for painting Seens. I’m attracted to the idea that words have power, and that using them carelessly can have unfortunate consequences. Hurrah for paranormal gay romance. First of a series.

Ombria in Shadow (Patricia A. McKillip)

High fantasy. Ombria is a kingdom full of shadows, where people seem to drift through time. I deeply love Patricia McKillip, but I wasn’t as pleased with the ending of this one. The book starts with the death of the prince and the casting off of his mistress – she finds a way to sneak back into the palace to continue raising the prince’s son, whom she loves as if he were hers. Mistress isn’t a title that is often accorded respect, but she’s effectively the new ruler’s stepmother, and they have a close bond. The dead prince also leaves behind a bastard son, whom many people would like to see seize the throne, but he’d rather spend his time drawing the things about Ombria he doesn’t understand. The third candidate for protagonist is the witch’s foundling, a young woman raised on the idea that the witch made her of wax who is now trying to figure out what it means to be human. These three marginal figures work together to protect each other and the young prince, because getting him to the throne is what’s best for the kingdom. Then there are the two witches – the one who lives in shadow realizes suddenly she’s been a mother for twenty years and is confronted with her own love for her waxling, and the one who lives in the palace is caught up in political maneuvers to consolidate her power over the kingdom. While things are vague the book is mysterious and exciting, but when the mysteries are revealed the book just ends. I prefer the revelation to come at the end of Act II, where characters use their new knowledge to guide the community to a resolution (after some thrilling and climactic confrontation befitting Act III), but this isn’t a Victorian sensation novel. Nor is it a romance, or a Bildungsroman, or any other of the labels we use to simplify the discussions about stories. I don’t think it’s fair to define a book (or anything else) by what it isn’t, but that’s where I end up when I try to explain this one. Perhaps that’s the reason for all the shadow – this is a book that just isn’t.

Written on the Body (Jeanette Winterson)

The unnamed narrator tells us about her affairs with married women. This book is deeply and beautifully sensual without being pornographic. She tells these stories in no particular order, as we do when we talk about our past to someone we’ve met only recently. Things can get a bit jumbled up, even though she gives us names for all of these women. There are a couple of men, but they rarely get more than a paragraph. Halfway through, suddenly, this becomes a book about cancer and loss, and while I don’t know if I would make the same choices that these people do, I was really engrossed by their story. This is a fantastic book, where as usual, Winterson probes into the heart of what it means to love.

Zeus is Dead: A Monstrously Inconvenient Adventure (Michael G. Munz)

The Greek gods return to earth in a fun comic novel. Apollo tries to solve the mystery of Zeus’s murder with the help of a television producer, a lovesick anti-hero, and the muse of comedy and sci-fi. In the end they have to defeat the Titans, because apparently that’s the part of Greek mythology that captures the imagination of contemporary writers. Can’t we just leave the Titans in peace? In some ways I found the characters frustrating – Ares is a really unkind Southern stereotype with inconsistent dialect markers, and the anti-hero is harshly sarcastic at inconvenient times. I suppose I just get disappointed when characters don’t use their power for the good of others, and none of the gods do.

The Godmakers (Don Pendleton)

Do not confuse this with the Frank Herbert novel that came out a couple of years later, nor with the anti-Mormon film (and novelization) a decade after that. I will be the first to admit that many of the books I have read over the past few months have been a bit insubstantial, or fluffy. Life has been stressful and I’ve needed relaxation more than intellectual stimulation and growth. However, this is the only one that I would actually call trashy. This is shit science fiction at its shittiest, the type of story that makes Barbarella look like high feminist drama. Characters use heterosexual sex to access higher dimensions of psychic energy, resulting in paranormal abilities. It’s very sex-positive, but racist, homophobic, and misogynistic as well. Adolescent wish fulfillment for incels.

Time Must Have a Stop (Aldous Huxley)

A strange book. It sometimes seems a bit like Dorian Grey, the young man learning about life from older, wealthier friends. But while Huxley makes Sebastian the center of the book, he doesn’t seem to find him very interesting. Sebastian’s uncle dies of a heart attack partway through, but his presence lingers on as we see him suffer in the afterlife and experience seances from the ghost’s point of view. Uncle Eustace keeps trying to hold onto an individual identity even when the painfully shining light tries to absorb him into a universal consciousness. This is the part of the story that attracted me, much more than the privileged teenager whining about finding evening clothes (a symbol of respectability denied him by the father who insists on breaking down class boundaries). Women characters are there to support Sebastian, acting as mothers, lovers, or evil crones. One of the fascinating things about this book is the setting, written in 1944 but about 1929. We’re on the cusp of a crash that author and audience know is coming but the characters don’t. Death gives Eustace some prescience, and the epilogue flashes forward to Huxley’s present, but those fifteen years don’t actually change Sebastian all that much. More experience means that he’s a handsome womanizing poet, not a handsome womanizing poet wannabe. I guess Huxley is right; I mean, as I look over my own life, it seems like there’s a lot of change, but the person I am has actually been pretty consistent. There were things that I thought were important that turned out to be superficial, and I have improved dramatically in self-knowledge and self-esteem, but the self in question is still the same. I enjoyed Huxley’s poetry; putting it in the mind of a teenager in the process of thinking through his art gives him a chance to show the revision process and a bunch of half-finished fragments of thought. It might not be as interesting to people who don’t write or study poetry.

Lime Gelatin and Other Monsters (Angel Martinez)

Another short paranormal gay romance novella. I get on a kick sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Kyle Monroe is a police officer in Philadelphia’s paranormal division, and while everyone there has magical abilities, they’re all bad at them, like the guy who accidentally lights things on fire when he’s angry, but only achieves little smolders rather than large conflagrations. They’re kind of like X-Men who haven’t had any training, so they just flail about with their unusual abilities and try not to hurt each other. Kyle absorbs the powers of those around him and controls them even more poorly, kind of like what I do with picking up on other people’s emotions subconsciously and then inventing reasons for me to feel this way. He gets a new partner, a giant beautiful man of southern Asian derivation, so it’s all police procedures and Indian food, with some gay sex thrown in. It was a fun little story.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J. K. Rowling)

The kids are sixteen, and romantic relationships are starting to take over the plot. They’re also swearing more often. Draco Malfoy and Professors Snape and Dumbledore play larger roles than they have heretofore, with Dumbledore taking a more active role in Harry’s education and the antagonists finally actually plotting to do evil things. We also meet Narcissa Malfoy, who is one of my favorites. There’s a big political storm brewing around her, but all she cares about is keeping her family safe and she will do anything to accomplish that, which makes her a lot more like Molly Weasley than people ever acknowledge. Mrs Weasley, poor dear, spends a lot of time worrying about everyone. Fred and George have become successful businessmen without having finished high school or attempted college, which is great to see, and people start to acknowledge that Ginny might be the most powerful witch of the series. The death at the end of this book always makes me sad, though I have plenty of other reasons for that just now. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad it’s over. One of the things that gets me about this series is that while Rowling is fantastic about retconning the Horcruxes and other plot elements, she does not do so well with retconning the school system. We seldom see students doing things that Harry and his friends can’t do yet, like trips to Hogsmeade or Apparating in the earlier books. We see adults doing serious magic, but there’s very little of the intermediate steps between where Harry is as an eleven-year-old and where his teachers are adults. Fred and George seem to represent the zone of proximal development for Harry, but even they are consistently more advanced than he is. It’s like, being raised by Muggles and not that good at academics, Harry isn’t really interested in doing magic, or he thinks that all magic is so far above him that he can’t even try. Finding the old Potions book in this story is the first time that Harry experiences magic as power he can access and not just a symbol of the social acceptance he was denied at his uncle’s house. Looking at Snape’s notes and revisions and experiments, he finally shows some actual interest and passion for something other than sports, so I’m disappointed in Hermione for trying to squash that. But she’s got enough of her own problems in this book, so I don’t judge her too harshly. A lot of people talk about the Slytherin House as being evil, but that’s not their defining trait. Think about Professor Slughorn as Head of that House. He’s not a bad guy, he’s just hyper alert to power and the way it moves. He likes it, he likes its benefits, and he likes being seen as close to people who have it. But he’s not willing to put others in harm’s way to get it, nor does he enjoy the suffering of the powerless. Slytherin isn’t about being evil or serpentine; it’s about understanding relationships of power and staying aware of how social structures affect people. Which is why I identify as Slytherin even a little more strongly than I do as Ravenclaw, the House of learning for its own sake where books are more important than people. This book is definitely building to the series finale/climax of book seven, much more strongly and intentionally than we’ve seen before.

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Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)

Barker has generally used a two-part structure in his books – you sort of defeat the bad guy halfway through, but then you realize that either it was much bigger and badder than you had imagined or there’s another much worse bad guy waiting behind the one you were after. In this one, though, he moves away from that into a much more unified plot. There’s still the magical world that exists parallel to ours, and the wide cast of characters so you don’t know who’s going to make it through and who won’t.

A famous actor gets plastic surgery, but has a bad reaction to it and goes into hiding in a secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard. There he meets some sex-crazed ghosts (and people who should really be ghosts by now) and enters the basement room that becomes The Devil’s Country. The obsessive president of his fan club tracks him down and has her own, very different experience.

There’s a section of about twenty-five pages where the author retells the story of how his own much-beloved dog died, and it’s not really essential to the plot, but it was essential to his grieving process and really, with almost seven hundred pages, it’s not long enough to feel like we’re completely sidetracked.

I love every Clive Barker book I read.

 

Gut Symmetries (Jeanette Winterson)

Sometimes I think that if people had a vocabulary for what they’re doing, they’d be more comfortable with it. These days we’d call this a polyamorous relationship and leave them in peace.

A young scientist has an affair with an older, married colleague. She feels guilty, so she talks to the wife about it. The wife is angry, of course, but also unexpectedly young and beautiful and artistic, so the women have an affair as well. Then there’s some trading around among the three.

What’s really interesting, though, is the intersection of different types of knowledge. Theories of gravity and attraction among subatomic particles and celestial bodies collide with poetry and attraction between lovers of various sexes. There’s only one world, and a Grand Unified Theory would have to encompass every mode of being, not just at a particle level but in all the ways we know ourselves. The book is full of synchronicities and parallels and connections, so many that I’d like to read it again so that I can see more of them and understand them when I see them.

I love every Jeanette Winterson book I read, and I’ve needed to read books I’m going to love.

 

Veronika Decides to Die (Paulo Coelho)

The first few times I read this book I loved it, but this time I was a lot less enthusiastic. It’s still an interesting story about a woman who learns to live well from the inmates of an insane asylum, but the discourse about mental illness is much more troubling to me now than it was before.

Coelho’s idea seems to be that mental illness is cultural and all you really have to do is learn to reject society and embrace who you really are in order to be healthy. There’s some value to that for some problems, but I don’t think schizophrenia can be cured with self-love, or that astral travel solves depression. He makes the chemical explanations sound equally as faith-based as the metaphysical ones, so serotonin and dopamine seem to exist on the same plane as the third eye and the soul. There may be value in both the mechanistic view of the body and the four-humors spiritual view, but it’s important to interact with those ideas on their own terms. Cortisol isn’t the same thing as black bile.

 

The Beauty of Men (Andrew Holleran)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this depressing. It’s about a gay man who survives the AIDS crisis but can’t handle middle age. It was like listening to that guy I dated briefly in Texas all over again – no life in the present, just a constant remembering of those who’ve died while taking care of an aging parent who is also going to die soon. There’s some cruising, but he pines for a man who doesn’t love him, which keeps him from being happy. Twenty years later, life for gay men in rural areas isn’t this bleak. I understand the importance of having recorded this moment in time, but I don’t live in that moment, and things are better now.

Protagonist lives in the same area of Florida that my dad does, so I did spend some time wondering where that boat ramp is. Not that he makes casual sex seem anything other than futile and depressing. Holleran writes well, but the world he creates is dark and empty and desperate, as if AIDS kills some men’s bodies but robs others of their souls.

 

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

This is a Harry Potter-Narnia mashup for grown-ups, with a little Dungeons and Dragons mixed in.

Quentin Coldwater gets pulled from his elite private school for teenage geniuses to attend a magical college. He gets through all four years in a little more than half the book, wanders around adulthood miserable and high until the two-thirds point, then he and his friends go off to Fillory, a magical land from a series of children’s fantasy books Quentin is obsessed with.

This is a book about what it’s like to grow up. Quentin is really bad at it. He can’t handle real-life adult problems, even after four years of school and comparative independence, so he turns to addictions for a while, then retreats into his childhood fantasy world only to discover that it’s full of adult problems too. Education, sex, and drugs haven’t prepared him to face the fact that he has to deal with the mess of who he is instead of hiding from it. In the end, he gets one of those mindless office jobs as another way of hiding from himself. There are two more books, so I hope he gets some self-awareness eventually.

There’s a television series based on these books that I rather enjoy, but it’s dramatically darker and more violent than the book. The book focuses exclusively on Quentin instead of tracking Julia’s parallel but more traumatic experience. Another important difference is time. The book encompasses five or six years (probably, maybe more), from when Quentin is seventeen until he’s in his early twenties. The series changes Brakebills to a post-graduate program and compresses everything from this book into a year or so. The compression of time makes sense with the actors not aging quickly and the fast-paced world we expect from entertainment, and the delay makes the sex more palatable I guess, because no one wants to watch twenty-two-year-olds having a threesome? (Poor Alice.)

 

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The intended audience of this book is dramatically younger than it is for any other Stephen King book I’ve read. It’s about a sword-and-sorcery fantasy land, with a prince locked in a tower and an evil magician who secretly runs the kingdom. Instead of going chronologically, there’s this circularity of the narrative, edging the plot forward a bit then running back to explain the backstory or to catch us up with a different character in a different location. It’s exciting and all, Stephen King deserves absolutely all the praise he gets, but the ending was rather dissonant with the rest of the book. Despite the fact that there’s a severely alcoholic teenager, most of the tone is light and kid-friendly, so when the magician grabs an axe and comes charging up the steps of the tower, it’s scary in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Besides, he can do magic and he poisons the king. Why is he charging around waving an axe over his head at all? Did he suddenly forget all his magical abilities in the overwhelming hatred for the prince? Yes, he’s one of those villains who wants to see the world burn, but he does everything else so quietly and intuitively that the eruption of physical fury at the end is really out of character.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

There was a recent movie, but I haven’t seen it.

The thing that strikes me about this one most strongly is how important it is to stay current with the news if you’re going to solve crimes, and how much easier it was to stay current with the news a hundred years ago. Hercule Poirot is less tired than he is in books written thirty years after this one, both literally and as a character. It’s a very well-ordered story: events unfold until the murder, then the detective examines the crime scene and interviews the witnesses and suspects, then he brings them all together and explains how the murder was done and by whom. There are no surprises, no desperate turn of events, and very little violence. The lack of action makes me wonder why this one is so popular and why it is so often considered the representative, exemplary Agatha Christie novel. Maybe people like the combination of simplicity and intellection. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

In 1941, the similarities between Brett Halliday and Dashiell Hammett are more pronounced. It’s easy to read Mike Shayne as Humphrey Bogart, though I didn’t cast the rest of the book and he doesn’t have red hair.

Mike Shayne is a private detective with two apartments – one on a higher floor where he lives with his wife Phyllis, and one on a lower floor that he uses as an office. As he and Phyllis are preparing for a vacation in New York, he gets an urgent professional call. Some drugged girl wanders into his office, vaguely connected with an upcoming local election. As he’s getting his wife to the train station without her finding out about the girl, someone sneaks into the office and kills her. He does a decent job of pretending she’s just asleep when the police come with his reporter friend Tim Rourke, but then the body disappears.

The rest is as you’d expect. Menacing thugs, car chases, car wrecks, reappearing corpses, an insane asylum, a maid who desperately wants both to divulge some information and to ride Shayne’s ginger cock, and all the Miami politics that I’m beginning to see as a vital part of the Mike Shayne universe. If it isn’t organized crime and crooked politicians, Halliday doesn’t care.

One of the things that really struck me in this novel is the way Mike Shayne’s peers police his sexuality. It reminded me of Private Romeo, a not-that-great LGBT movie that locates Romeo and Juliet in an all-boys military school. We expect parents to guard their children’s behavior, but when Lord Capulet’s lines are suddenly coming from a seventeen-year-old, it gets sort of weird. Why is this boy acting in loco parentis? Is he homophobic, or is he trying to save Juliet for himself? But here, the police and Rourke aren’t trying to bed Mike Shayne; it’s as if somehow marriage is a fragile concept, and if Shayne has extramarital sex then the whole thing is fake. His infidelity would make their unrelated relationships mean less to them. He got the fairy-tale ending they all wanted in a previous book, and now they need him to live up to the Prince Charming role that they assigned to him. To be clear, Shayne doesn’t want to cheat on his wife with either the drugged girl or the maid – he loves his wife, and really is the white knight everyone needs him to be. But he needs the police to think he’s screwing the dead girl so they don’t look closely enough to realize she’s dead and start an investigation, and he accepts the fact that he might need to give it to the maid to get the information he wants. Of course, Halliday makes the maid disappear so Shayne is freed from temptation, but still. Everyone has an opinion on Mike Shayne’s sex life, and they all act as if their opinion should matter to him.

“It just goes to show,” Rourke went on, “what damn fools we all are when we pretend to be so tough. You and Phyllis were a symbol of some Goddamned thing or other around this man’s town. While you stayed straight it proved to all of us that the love of a decent girl meant something – and that was good for us. Every man needs to believe that down inside.” Rourke was talking to himself now, arguing aloud a premise which his cynicism rejected.

“That’s what distinguishes a man from a beast. It’s what we all cling to. There’s the inward conviction that it isn’t quite real – that it doesn’t mean anything – that we’re marking time until the real thing comes along – like Phyllis came along for you. And when that illusion is shattered before your very eyes – like with you today – it’s ugly, Mike. It’s a shock. It doesn’t laugh off easily.”

It does make me wonder about my relationship, and what I’m doing here. He’s convinced that we’re going to get married and live happily ever after, but I’m not convinced. I love him, and I’ll give him what time I can, but I don’t have that sense of finality. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time believing that anything endures, but I don’t see this as the last relationship I’m ever going to have. I’m getting what good I can out of it, but I’m not expecting forever.

KISS KISS BANG BANG

This movie claims to be based on the Halliday novel, but it’s more homage than picturization. Harry (Robert Downey Jr) is a small-time thief who blunders into an audition and gets shipped to Los Angeles because he can do the part and he looks sort of like Colin Farrell. Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is hired to give him detective lessons, and they stumble into a plot that also has car chases, car wrecks, disappearing and reappearing corpses, and an insane asylum. Honestly, that part of it is straight out of Victorian sensation novels, especially The Woman in White. Being in Hollywood instead of Miami, the politicians are replaced by movie people, and some other plot points are adjusted to match 2005’s version of gritty (more severe than 1941’s). Also being in Hollywood, there’s an aspiring actress played by Michelle Monaghan. I think she’s pretty great, in this and in her other films. There’s actually a lot of conversation around the ethics of consent in the first part of the movie, RDJ being the good guy of course. But still, despite the occasional naked woman, my favorite sexy bit is when Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr make out in an alley. Gay Perry is my hero.

New Guy has been moving in with me over the last couple of weeks (one more reason to be behind in writing about books – I’m three behind again), so when I watched the movie to remind myself of it before writing here, he was there with me. He started to like it when MM cuts RDJ’s finger off halfway through; so afterward he felt like he had to tell me how boring he thought the first half was. Several times. And when I told him that I had gotten the message and he could stop saying that, he still had to say the word two or three more times. I didn’t feel like I needed to explain this, but apparently I do: when I say that I like this movie and I really want to watch it, a part of me identifies with it. When you insult my favorite movies, you’re telling me that I have bad taste – you’re insulting me. I’m ready to be lovers again, but I’m not quite as peaceful about it as I have been.

Brett Halliday’s novels are turning out to be just what I need in terms of reading during grad school: untaxing, relaxing, exciting. This is one of the first – Halliday (a pseudonym) began writing Mike Shayne novels in 1939, and in 1941 this is the fifth. He continued writing them until 1958, but other writers took over and continued writing the series until 1976. It’s a bit strange to think of Shayne’s career lasting almost forty years; he doesn’t seem to age. In terms of physical fitness and prowess, he’s just as good twenty-five years later as he is here, and his hair is never anything but red. I suppose we don’t like to see characters growing old, even though I think it’s a good thing. We all age, so we need healthy models to learn to do it well. No one learns to be healthy from reading Mike Shayne books.

These winter holidays have just been a whirlwind. I feel like I haven’t stopped running since Thanksgiving.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, we closed down the library for the vacation and I came home to pack. On Wednesday, I packed up my landlady next door and drove her to Florida, and her little Toto-looking dog, too. We stayed with a friend of hers, a philosophy teacher with a taste for the occult, so someone who’s a lot like me, only older. The weather was amazing, and the room he put me in had a private bath and a screened porch with large trees for additional privacy. I thought to myself, if I lived here, I might never put clothes on again.

Seeing an older version of myself, I’m rather concerned about my future. I think swearing is fun, and I occasionally have little outbursts at the injustices of the world when I’m among friends, but he had a lot less control over his tongue than I do. An additional forty years of living alone meant that he sort of melted down over any contretemps, and I could see myself easily becoming this if I let myself. It was also frightening to see someone insist on doing things that are unsafe, like driving a car when he’s blind in one eye and has a tendency to doze off at inconvenient times. I was afraid I might die, or at least become so severely injured that I wouldn’t be able to meet the rest of my appointments during the vacation.

On Thursday we went to the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg. I thought it was a little pricy, as I always do when going to a museum, but it was a valuable experience. I shunned the guides because I object to being told what to look at, and one of the guides was so loud and obnoxious that I found myself ducking around corners trying to hide from his voice. Another was so quiet that I barely noticed she had a group, which I found much more congenial to the enjoyment of beauty. When I’m focusing on the emotional effect of an experience, I find quiet to be essential.

In some ways, the irritating guide highlighted what feels to be basic, essential differences between myself and mainstream humanity. He kept asking rhetorical questions like, Who else would make the head of a crucifix the bullet hole in Lincoln’s forehead? And I would think, That makes perfect sense to me. While both Lincoln and Christ did good things, they both cemented their martyr status, securing the love of millions, by being killed. They would have little fame without their deaths, so yes, juxtapose their mortal wounds. It feels wholly logical to me, but the guide’s question made me feel like Dali and I are both in some way inhuman, divorced from our own species by having a different perspective. I suppose fragmentation and connections between apparently unlike things come naturally to us both. While others were marveling at the strangeness of Dali’s work, processing the cerebral surrealism, the main impression with which I left the gallery was that he paints such beautiful sadness.

As I came around the corner and saw this one, I thought, What a handsome man.

dali

There was a special exhibit of Dali’s duets with Elsa Schiaparelli, a fashion designer. They did a lot of plays on the phrase “chest of drawers,” combining women’s bodies with furniture. Which explains why some women’s dresses have tiny little pockets on the front that make them look like an old card catalog system. The print dresses they designed were just amazing. I know I don’t discuss women’s clothing often, but when it’s done well it’s clear that clothing is just as much of an art form as painting. And as I’m sitting here thinking of it, the women I spend time with do tend to dress well. [I’m thinking of the ones I know in real life who also read here.] I should probably compliment them more often.

Friday we went to the metaphysical shop where she used to give readings. We’ve been around to some of her old friends in the psychic community here in North Carolina, but it’s the ones in Florida who seemed really excited to see her. In many ways, getting back to Florida is as much a homecoming for her as North Carolina is for me.

She asked one of her friends to do a reading for me, and it was really good. I believe she was trying to be Yenta, putting her two gay male friends in a room alone together, but nothing of that sort happened. Yes, there was some connection, in many ways our energies are a good match, but we are in very different places, both geographically and emotionally, and besides, he’s a psychic. If he had seen a future for us, he would have asked me out.

There were a good many things he said that either confirm what I’ve been feeling or what other people have been saying to me. Professionally: the work I have been doing was good for a while, but now it’s sort of turned to shit and I need to do something else. I already know what, I just need to go ahead and pursue that. I’ve already commented on how little satisfaction I get from teaching and how much more I enjoy working in a library, so I’ll continue to focus my energies there. Personally: if I choose, then of course I can keep living on the edge of nowhere and be single and lonely for the rest of my life. But if I want to meet a presently unattached gay man who will love me, I have to go where the unattached gay men are. He’s known men who would make great husbands, but they end up alone because they’re so busy expressing their domesticity that they never get out of the house. If I don’t want their fate, I need to stop modeling their behavior. One of the things that has been making me hesitate is my need to take care of other people, but it’s time to stop doing that and take care of myself. The other people will do just fine without me. There was some other stuff too, like my oldest son trying to figure out how he and I fit into each other’s lives, but I don’t think that’s uncommon for sixth graders. He’s growing up, and his relationships with his parents are likely to be as confused as his relationship with himself for a while. And there was a skinny dark-haired man surrounded by hills, but I don’t think I’ve met him yet.

In the shop, there was a necklace that called to me, so (not wearing jewelry) I hung it up on the rearview mirror of my car. Ever since, I’ve felt driven to learn about Wicca.

Saturday I drove back home alone. She had other friends to see, but I had an invitation to see my kids for the holiday, which hasn’t happened in my six years of separation and divorce, so I wasn’t about to miss it. The drive was absolutely miserable; I seriously need to rethink driving during the holidays. But on Sunday morning my children were delighted to see me. They really liked the things I made for them, and they were excited about giving me a gift too – my middle son realized this year that I always give them things, but they never give me Christmas presents, so they put their heads together and bought me a concert ticket. It’s for a band that I don’t listen to much since the divorce, but it’ll be a good opportunity to leave the house and get drunk in public.

I spent Christmas day by myself, which is what I really wanted from this holiday. I opened my mother’s gift straightaway, without cleaning the entire house or eating breakfast first (rules from childhood). She got me a pair of lounge pants with cartoon characters on them, in an extra large. I have never been a size extra large. When I called her about that fact, she pointed out that they had a drawstring, so I could make them as tight as I liked, never mind the fact that they’re six inches too long. I did not mention the fact that it has been several years since I’ve worn clothing with cartoon characters; I like dressing like a grown-up. It’s generally agreed in my family that my mother’s mind is starting to go – just starting, but starting nonetheless. Having watched my grandmother fade out with Alzheimer’s, I’m rather apprehensive about my mom’s future. There might be seven of us, but none of us can afford the care my grandmother had.

Tuesday was a day of diminishing resources. I had a check in my hand and an empty checking account, but the banks gave their employees another day off for the holiday, so I couldn’t use the money I had. I had brought some snacks home from the work Christmas party, so I stayed home and ate snack foods and read all day. Not a bad day, but I would have liked to get out a little. Wednesday I deposited my check, returned the lounge pants, and drove back to Florida. The landlady next door was starting to talk about staying longer, so while my ostensible purpose was to pick her up, I really just wanted to go back down there.

I spent Thursday and Friday with my dad. His visit to Illinois was really awkward, so I’ve been sort of avoiding him, but he sounded so pathetic on the phone, talking about missing me, that I gave him some time, and I’m glad I did. The awkwardness had passed away, and it feels like things are back where they were. He is aware of my immorally liberal lifestyle, and I’m aware of his racism and conservatism, but we try not to push those things in each other’s faces. We can bond over watching science fiction, but really, we let his wife pick the movies, so we saw Dr No and some old monster movies. So many of the James Bond movies are perfectly silly, like Moonraker, that it can be hard to remember that the first two were actually quite good. The only Bond I like as much as Sean Connery is Daniel Craig. While this isn’t a fashionable opinion, I also have a soft spot for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where George Lazenby makes an entire resort full of girls think he’s gay.

Friday we spent all day working on my car. A few weeks ago, the driver’s seat moved itself all the way forward and wouldn’t move backward, so in all of these journeys my knees had been pressed into the dashboard and I looked like a praying mantis trying to steer. We got the seat disassembled to reach the motors underneath, and Dad attached a battery to the appropriate pieces of electronics to push the seat all the way back. We left the motors disconnected, so now there will be no more unwanted scooting forward. I say we here, but he’s getting a lot better about directing and letting me do the things. My dad is losing his fine motor coordination and his hands shake, so that’s another thing for me to worry about as I grow older.

Saturday I drove back down to the southern part of Florida, to hang out with the landlady and her son. He’s handsome, kind, my own age, and perfectly straight. But we’re becoming very good friends (his girlfriend is really great too), and I’m happy to know him. The mother is a smoker on oxygen for her COPD, but hadn’t been using her oxygen enough on the long car trips, so she had an episode and spent a night in the hospital. People say she’s bouncing back quickly, but a few days later she was only sitting up for an hour or less at a time, so I don’t know whether that’s quickly or not.

The young’uns of us stayed up late, drinking wine and playing board games most of the evenings I was there. One night his roommate brought out something to smoke, and I hadn’t participated in that since I was in Brazil, so I agreed. It’s amazing what I’ll agree to after three or four glasses of sweet red (Jam Jar is my jam). Oddly enough, some of the pattern was repeated – in Brazil, it was the men who would smoke pot, and the women tended to decline, so we’d go off down the street a ways and share a joint about the size of a grain of rice (a little thicker, but not really longer). Here, the son’s girlfriend declined, so we went out to the garage, but this time instead of a tiny little thing there was a pipe, and it was full. So I got rather more of the THC than I did before, and I got really giggly and really ruthless in the board game. I won. I also don’t remember much of that night. The next day, though, I was really sick. Part of it was not being used to smoking, part of it was drinking too much, and part of it was spending most of the week with cats, to which I am allergic.

We got out to do some hiking, though for me that word implies a change of elevation, so maybe it’ll be better to say we walked through the woods some, in a few different locations. I wanted to see some manatees, but the water was too cold. One spot we went to had some kind of Devil Tree, where all sorts of terrible things are rumored to have happened. There are some documented murders in the near vicinity. But when I touched the tree, all I felt was a great sadness, as if the tree had seen some serious shit but was in no way responsible. Farther off the trail behind the tree there are the remains of a few buildings, and those set all of our spider-senses a-tingling. In thinking about the experience, I’ve been wondering about my response. I hear, Hey, there’s this evil thing over here, and I say, Great! Let’s go see it! I feel that there’s something bad in a place, and I run towards it. Past evil draws me like a magnet. I don’t yet understand why, but I aim to find out.

I drove back on Tuesday. It was hard to leave, particularly when I could tell that no one wanted me to, but the traffic had somehow returned to normal levels, so I guess Jan 2 isn’t a bad travel day. I’m taking today, Wednesday, to rest and recover, and then tomorrow I’m back to work. While I was gone, the temperature dropped significantly, so even though my heat’s been on all morning it’s not warm yet. Something in the water line is frozen – we have expandable pipes, so they won’t break, but I won’t have running water until the weather turns. I hope it’s soon.

Until two weeks ago, all of my experience with the state of Florida had been with the northern part, where there are palm trees but the culture is still remarkably similar to the southern parts of Georgia and Alabama, so the energy there is sort of conformist and threatening. But the area where I was over the break was very different. It was very uplifting and life-affirming. I enjoyed my holidays much more than I was expecting to. Here’s hoping for more serendipity in 2018.

This one has been floating at the edge of my life for quite a while now. My ninth grade students had to study it this past spring, and now some of my intermediate language students are reading a simplified version. One of the advanced students retold it for her “Write a love story” assignment, so I decided to stop fighting the world’s tide and reread it.

One of the things that strikes me is how unified the play is. Typically Shakespeare gives a minor plotline that converges on the main story, like the Fortinbras part of Hamlet, or the Beatrice and Benedick love story in Much Ado. There’s some displaced focus when we think of the Capulets’ scheme to marry Juliet to Paris, but that part is so closely tied to Juliet’s despair that it doesn’t feel like an interlude.

When I was in grad school, my Shakespeare professor made the comment that things don’t make much sense to us in Twelfth Night because it’s a world run by teenagers, Olivia and Orsino being fairly young. I think R+J has the same feel, even though the parents are more adult. I’ve met some people who became parents as teenagers and have become unusually mature for their age group; I’ve also met some who abdicate responsibility for their children (giving them to Juliet’s Nurse, for example), and so they never really grow up. Lady Capulet is actually a sizable role, but she’s not the type of parent I want to be.

Reading it this time, my attention was centered on Friar Laurence. I suppose that’s because, as a teacher, he is the main character I have the most in common with. He wants to fix all of society’s problems, but in aiming too high he kills his students – an outcome I have avoided, and hope to continue to avoid. I was also struck with the similarity between him and Benvolio; they both try and fail to keep the peace, and they serve the same function, the innocent witness who reports the murders. And for all that he is typically portrayed as getting drunk with Mercutio at the Capulets’ party, there is something a little monastic about Benvolio.

I watched the video of a performance at the Globe Theatre, which I can now compare with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films. In this performance, Romeo and Tybalt are black; I can appreciate the effort to get some different ethnicities into the play (Friar Laurence is a nonwhite New Zealander), but did they have to make the two murderers black? And no one else? In terms of racial stereotypes, this is not exactly a step forward. I prefer Luhrmann’s choices, of using black actors as the authority figure and the victim. Mercutio gets caught in the middle of a fight between white people, which is sort of what happened to the entire continent of Africa. If Adetomiwa Edun were amazing as Romeo, like Harold Perrineau is as Mercutio, I might not have been too bothered, but frankly, I thought most of the Globe’s cast was fairly wooden. Romeo bounces all over the stage like a nutter on Ritalin, even when he’s supposed to be desperate because of Rosaline’s indifference. Benvolio is one of those guys whose acting style is, “The director told me to stand here and talk, and on this line he told me to walk to this point and watch Romeo talk.” There’s very little natural movement or heartfelt emotion. I was impressed with Fergal McElherron, who plays three of the minor parts but plays them all very differently, and their Mercutio, Philip Cumbus. The audience pretty much ignored the verbal sparring and laughed only at the sex jokes, but Cumbus managed to do both very well. I like my men to be a little cocky, and Cumbus and Perrineau both do Mercutio very well. That being said, I prefer Zeffirelli’s take on the death scene: in his film, Tybalt and Mercutio only play at fighting; it’s not serious until Romeo comes between them and Tybalt accidentally kills him. The Montagues laugh all the way through his “plague on both your houses” speech because they still haven’t figured out that he’s being serious, or that he’s been seriously injured. Luhrmann’s film is more violent in general, so when Mercutio gets stabbed with a shard of glass it’s upsetting but not surprising. The Globe’s fighting is always straightforward, which in some ways robs it of the shock that the other two films have.

I have never been terribly interested in Romeo. He’s always so generic. All anyone cares about is whether he’s handsome, and actors generally are, so there’s not much to say about him. I’m a much bigger fan of Tybalt. Especially John Leguizamo. He’s so badass. I suppose there’s a part of me that responds to Tybalt’s rage; for a single-emotion character, I always find him very appealing.

But what about Juliet? I find Zeffirelli’s Juliet completely forgettable (my apologies, but that’s the most complimentary I can be). Claire Danes is fine I guess; her Juliet is very similar to her Beth March, sweet and innocent and affectionate, the kind of girl every boy wants to marry. But Ellie Kendrick really makes Juliet interesting. Danes is educated and intellectual in her real life, but I didn’t see much of that in this performance. Kendrick’s performance is the first smart Juliet I’ve seen. Unlike most of the actors, with her I could tell that she knew what her lines meant. She doesn’t just reel them off as quickly as she can so that no one can understand her (Romeo and Benvolio, I’m looking at you); she puts thought and expression into everything. I found myself growing impatient with the scenes that didn’t have her in them; she was clearly the best part of the show. I especially liked the scene where Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment; I felt like I was watching a mad scene in an opera, as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Juliet has an Ophelia quality that most of them lack.   When Danes pulls the gun on the priest I’m always a little confused at her sudden intensity, but Kendrick makes a believable transition between happy innocence and suicidal grief. And yes, her characterization here is similar to her role in Being Human, so maybe she’s a cute nerdy girl in real life, but that’s not really a problem for me. Every actor brings to a character some aspects of her real self; the trick to good acting is knowing which aspects to bring to which character. Like any other art form, acting is a mode of self-expression.

No matter what people say, Romeo and Juliet is not the greatest love story ever. It has become one of the most recognizable, the most copied, the most archetypal, but never the greatest. Two kids fall in love and kill themselves a few days later – this isn’t a grand passion, it’s deranged. Let them live in love for more than a week. Let them overcome obstacles instead of faking suicide (and then really committing suicide) at the first hurdle. Capulet has nothing but good things to say about Romeo at the party, but Juliet never gives her parents a chance to approve of the match. Basically, these kids would rather die than tell their parents they’re dating. The behavior of the fathers at the end of the play makes me think that they could have buried the hatchet without their children dying – the marriage with no possibility of divorce (or annulment, since they consummated) would have done the trick. It’s not like they took ten minutes to think about it; they jumped straight into reconciliation as if they’d been wanting this for a long time without knowing how to do it without a pretext.

Maybe this play is like Oliver Twist; I’m getting too old to enjoy it. My own love stories are very different. I might be attracted to someone at first glance, but I need more than a few flirty puns to fall in love. And I can recognize the difference between infatuation and real love. I may fall in love quickly, but I’m not going to let it cripple or kill me. I’m determined to stay alive no matter what my emotional state may become. If getting divorced didn’t kill me, I’m not going to let anything else.

I normally write here about books or the occasional movie, but music is a very important part of my life. I listen in the car and while doing household tasks, like cooking or cleaning. Most days, I probably spend more time listening to music than I do reading. I even studied music at school – I minored in piano for my undergraduate degree. Even though I took all the theory and music history courses, I still feel inadequate when it comes to writing about music. Part of that is just how patchy my knowledge of the tradition is, and another big part is that my inner hipster is ashamed of the music I enjoy. My inner hipster used to be more outward: I once wore a black turtleneck to an event where I read my own poetry, and I didn’t realize I had become a cliché until halfway through. That wannabe aesthete is still alive and kicking inside me, and he tries to direct my musical and artistic tastes, but the other selves I am don’t always listen. Yes, I like the brooding garage-band indie sound, but I also like the more poppy stuff they play in the shops.

I have begun buying music at Walmart, unapologetically. One such purchase is Christina Perri’s second album, Head or Heart. The sound is a little brighter, the mood a little more upbeat than it was in Lovestrong, just as you would expect from an artist who used to write her music alone when she had time off from waitressing and now has a lucrative recording contract and writes her songs in committee.

So, I’m breaking the silence on music because I wanted to share an experience. The other day, I was driving along and listening to this CD. The third track is a silly love duet with Ed Sheeran that I always sing along with, and suddenly I could see myself singing this with someone in the passenger seat singing the other part. Me and him, singing “Be My Forever” at each other. At the end of the song I was so happy I laughed out loud – I always laugh when I’m happy, even when things aren’t funny – then I kissed my hand and rubbed it down the side of his face, hard so that he’d know I meant it. Then the vision closed and I was alone, but I still have the hope that someday (soon) I’ll meet this guy who will sing in the car with me and make me so happy I can’t contain the feeling.

So. The ex and I had been married for a few years, and still hadn’t seen all of each other’s favorite movies, so I made her watch What Dreams May Come. I love this film – it touches on the love of children for their father, it goes into how to deal with grief and extreme depression in a romantic partner, and it’s visually one of the more beautiful films I’ve seen. Afterward, I asked her what she thought, and she was just like, eh. It’s okay. When I asked her to elaborate, she said, “It’s not real.” Of course it’s not real! It’s not intended to provide a road map of the afterlife. It’s a story about love and responses to grief; death is just a convenient way to isolate a few characters and re-juxtapose them so they don’t recognize each other. Diana Wynne Jones and C. S. Lewis do this by transporting characters into magical fantasy worlds; the filmmakers just used death instead of a magical wardrobe. For me, the fact that the movie isn’t real doesn’t matter.

This question came up in reading Zealot. The book is a biography of Jesus, based on historical research. Being based on documented fact instead of the accounts written by his followers, the depiction of Jesus is rather different than what most people expect. But, like with What Dreams May Come, is it real? And does that matter?

The Fox-News interview focused on his credentials instead of on his book, so let’s review those. Aslan was raised a Muslim in Iran, but his family fled to the United States. Islam became a reminder of the troubles they were escaping, so most of them left off practicing. As a teenager, he became converted to evangelical Christianity; preparing for college, he reverted to Islam. He got a PhD in religion and an MFA in creative writing, attending the illustrious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This much he tells us himself, in the introductory material. First off, we need to address the IWW. It’s famous for producing some of America’s finest writers in the last few decades. However, I’ve noticed that while they all have different interests and foci in their work, they all tend to sound the same. The IWW style is clear, concise, serviceable. But it’s not florid. I like florid. I like it when an author luxuriates in language simply because he loves words. The IWW writers don’t do this. For them, language is not a paintbrush; it’s a screwdriver. There were no passages of especial beauty for me to transcribe here – Aslan has written the least emotional account of Jesus’ life I’ve ever read, possibly the least emotional account of any person’s life. It draws the reader in, moves quickly, shows off the author’s vocabulary, describes the setting sufficiently to place the reader in the world depicted, all those things that good prose is supposed to do, except make the reader fall in love. Porro unum est necessarium.

What is a Muslim doing writing about Jesus? Well, what is Islam? Submission to God, worship of the single monotheistic God. Therefore, all the prophets, all of ‘God’s people,’ have been Muslims. Islam teaches of four major prophets: Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Followers of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were just as much Muslims as those who follow Muhammad today. The Qur’an tells stories about Jesus; they have just as much a right to him as anyone else. Christians write books about Jeremiah and Isaiah; Muslims can write about Jesus. The point that Aslan focused on, though, is that he has a terminal degree in religion. He teaches religion in a prestigious university. It’s his job to talk about Jesus all day long. He’s not writing a book about faith; it’s a book about a historical person, one that the author has spent years studying. I could write my thesis on Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen without being an Englishwoman; Aslan can write a book about Jesus without being Christian.

But he’s wrong in implying that Islam has nothing to do with his book. Iran tends to be mostly Shia; this is the minority of Muslims that are more prone to violent acts in the name of God. When he describes the Jewish Robin Hoods that were trying to throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor, waving their swords and shouting “No lord but God,” it sounds an awful lot like Muslim extremists who go into their fight against Israel (or more moderate Muslims) saying the “La illaha.” Aslan never makes this explicit, but his language certainly invites the comparison. He makes Jesus seem like a two-thousand-year-old suicide bomber. Aslan rips apart the Christian idea of Jesus and replaces it with a narrative that fits more closely with Islam’s presentation of him, including the idea that the deification of Jesus began with Paul, who rarely concerned himself with what Jesus actually said.

The first quarter of Aslan’s book describes the historical context, going back about 150 years before Jesus was born and extending a hundred years or so after he died. The focus is on the interaction between Jerusalem and Rome. Judea was a troublous province way off in the sticks; they wouldn’t submit to assimilating nicely like all the other conquered peoples. Jerusalem was the home of the Temple, the symbol of the Jews’ faith and their most important gathering-place. This was where God spoke to the people. The priests tended to live in luxury while the rest of the Jews got poorer and poorer. They blamed their poverty on the wealthy foreigners who moved into their cities (or built their own new cities on Jewish land). There were a number of violent insurgents who tried to drive the foreign elements out of their land and free the Jews; a lot of them were called messiahs. Rome was brutal in putting down the insurgents. They called them bandits and thieves, like the two who talked to Jesus when they were all hanging around on the crosses. The extreme violence makes this a terrible time and place to have lived. This part of the book, I think, would be of great interest and import to those people who want to understand the world Jesus lived in, what he would have considered normal. These are his cultural expectations.

The second quarter, a little longer than the first, tells the story of the life of Jesus. There are very few reliable historical documents that refer to him; Aslan talks about Josephus’s brief mentions of him. Some of this section is derived directly from the source material in the first: Jesus was killed for the same crime as some of these other guys, so let’s see what they did to draw attention to themselves and then assume that Jesus did something similar. Aslan has a troubled relationship with the Bible; some parts he dismisses as fabrications, others he treats as historical fact, and he rarely tells us why he treats the stories so differently. The thing is, like What Dreams May Come, most of the Bible was never intended to be taken as literal historical fact. The different gospels were written with different purposes in mind: to compare Jesus to King David as king of Israel, or to convince people that he was this eternal god incarnated for a brief time, for example. The stories in the gospel aren’t about facts; they’re about truth. If your messiah is an illiterate, probably illegitimate peasant, then you’ll need to argue that he’s descended from the royal line of Israel, whether anyone believes it or not. The point of those genealogies is to tell us who Jesus should remind us of, not to trace a literal family tree.

In chucking out a good bit of the gospels, Aslan is chucking out the Qur’an as well. Muslims also believe in the virgin birth, though Aslan dismisses it as a patent impossibility. He says that either Joseph jumped the fence or Mary was sleeping with a Roman soldier. Yet, he accepts Jesus’ ability to perform miracles. The area was full of faith healers, and no one (in the Roman government or American academia) seems to have opposed them. Why can we accept the idea that Jesus was an actual magician, but not that he was born magically? Aslan seems arbitrary in his choice of what he will accept and what he will not. As another example, Aslan does not challenge the story of the Transfiguration even though there were only four people present for it and none of them wrote the story of it. None of them could have, not being able to read or write. The gospels come from two basic sources, Mark and Q. Mark was written thirty years or so after Jesus died, and I’m not sure about Q. Q has gone missing, but scholars have recreated much of it by using the shared material in Matthew and Luke. And John, well, John’s just different.

The main point is that Jesus defied the authority of Rome and the Temple. The Temple was in Rome’s pocket anyway, since they appointed the high priests. Jesus drove out the Roman influence and said a lot of Jerusalem-for-the-Jews kind of stuff. There was also the Triumphal Entry. Jesus was challenging Rome, so the Romans killed him, just as they had everyone else who had done the same thing. It’s pretty simple.

Much simpler than the task of harmonizing the four gospels. The only other account of Jesus’ life I’ve read is James E Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. His attempts are sometimes contrived, and his story is much drier. Even in the faith tradition Talmage comes from, his book is considered difficult to get through. He puts forth a valiant effort to make the four different stories fit together; often he’s successful, sometimes not so much. Talmage accepts everything in the gospels as gospel, though, unlike Aslan.

The third section is comparatively brief. It covers the time after Jesus’ death. It reads a bit like The Brontë Myth; it’s about the creation of Jesus as a phenomenon, how he is uncoupled from his historical reality and transformed into The Christ. Aslan blames first Stephen, who claimed to see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God (and therefore in a position of equivalent power and authority), right before he was stoned to death for blasphemy. Yeah, it is blasphemous, and Jesus would have seen it that way too. The next, more important culprit is Paul. Originally he went around persecuting the followers of Jesus, but he had a dramatic conversion experience and joined their team. But the problem is that he never really joined them. He took the idea of Jesus to the Greek-influenced foreigners and repackaged him for their consumption. That’s why he stripped away all of that Law-of-Moses stuff: so that his Hellenic audience would buy it. The real followers of Christ in Jerusalem didn’t. They called him back to Jerusalem to try to get him back in line with the rest of them, but he absolutely refused. Paul went on inventing Christian theology with nary a thought as to the actual historical Jesus, whom most people could still remember (if they had ever heard of him before Paul started preaching). Unfortunately in the eyes of some, Paul’s version caught on in Rome (even though Peter got there before him), and when Christianity became the religion of the empire, it was Paul’s version, which he mostly made up himself.

The really important guy was James, Jesus’ brother. Despite what many Christians believe, James was the real leader of the group of Jesus’ followers, not Peter or Paul. He did everything he could to keep the real, historical, political, Jewish Jesus alive in people’s minds and hearts. His version of things wasn’t so popular with the literate, powerful crowd as Paul’s was, so he has faded with time. James was the monotheistic one who didn’t associate anyone else in the worship of God; Paul started all that polytheistic weirdness we call the Trinity.

The last third of the book is documentation and source material, so maybe Aslan isn’t as arbitrary as he seemed to me. But reading through bibliographical references isn’t very interesting, so I skipped that part. Besides, I don’t know enough about the academic study of Jesus’ life to recognize any of his citations.

How should Christians take all this? Well, they survived The Da Vinci Code, they can survive this. They already believe in a lot of things that defy logic, so I don’t see how a logical argument like this one can pose any sort of threat at all. It’s so polarized that it will only convince those who are already inclined to agree with it. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re thoroughly convinced in the literal interpretation of the Bible. I found Aslan’s book convincing, despite the occasional inconsistencies, but I was raised in a church where the most influential leader of the nineteenth century said that the story of creation in Genesis is more of a bedtime story than anything to do with either history or science.

Which leads me back to What Dreams May Come. So, I’ve determined that the stories in the Bible aren’t factual. But does that matter? Like the film, they were never intended as such. There are still a lot of good ethical ideas in Christian writings, still a lot of beauty in Christian poetry, still some comfort to be had in Christian ritual. But I can admit that without having to adopt their version of a suicidal, bloodthirsty, vengeful, jealous, possibly plural god. I don’t have to reject everything in Christianity, but I don’t have to accept it all either. I just need to remember that in my ongoing search for spiritual guidance, I can’t rely on those who interpret the bible literally. It all has to be taken with a grain of salt.